It’s fair to say that the nurses of the Australian Army didn’t get nearly enough credit for the job that they did during the First World War; that’s criminal, really, when you realise just how close to the front they were, the conditions they lived in, and the trauma they endured, all while facing massive amounts of sexism and being told that they must get on with it, put their own feelings aside and be the emotional rock for thousands of troops that were under their care.
Based on Peter Rees’ book The Other Anzacs: Nurses at the War 1914-1918, which contains diary entries and accounts from five of the ANZAC nurses, ANZAC Girls spans almost the entirety of the Great War, and tells the stories of these nurses, which range from personal struggles to genuine acts of heroism. Sisters Olive Haynes (Anna McGahan), Alice Ross King (Georgia Flood), Hilda Steele (Antonia Prebble), Elsie Cook (Laura Brent) and Matron Grace Wilson (Caroline Craig) travelled all over Europe and Northern Africa providing the best care possible for the Australian Diggers, especially during the Gallipoli campaign, which all of the nurses experience the horror of first hand. Adapted by Felicity Packard, the series shows the different fronts for Australians during WWI. From Cairo to the Somme, these nurses are as much in the thick of it all as the troops, and under intense pressure and scrutiny from the army, who didn’t believe that war was a place for women.
The series is at its strongest in two sections: the depiction of how Grace Wilson and Olive Haynes, along with other ANZAC nurses, arrive on the island of Lemnos in Greece, and have to build a field hospital from the ground up; and the final two episodes, which feature the front line in France, particularly around the Somme and Trois Arbes, and focus on Sisters Ross King and Steele. In these sections, the fortitude of these women and the need for them to be much stronger and more courageous than the soldiers that are on the front lines is the primary focal point of the story. This was truly interesting, and if the series had focussed more on this side of the nurses’ lives, it would have been a real knockout.
Unfortunately, much of the first half of the series revolves around the nurses’ personal lives, with Elsie Cook’s storyline entirely about her secret husband, Syd Cook (who was the son of former Prime Minister Joseph Cook), and her jumping through hoops to take care of him after he suffers brain damage from Gallipoli. Alice Ross King’s storyline also revolves around her three possible suitors, and in her case her storyline becomes far more interesting when the focus steps away from that, and of her personal struggle and her immense courage in France in 1917. Don’t get me wrong, these stories are necessary – they help to demonstrate the emotional fortitude and compassion of the nurses as while their worlds are falling apart or when they’re on shaky ground, they are required to put all of that aside – but there was too much focus on this and it was detrimental to character growth. Take Elsie for example – for much of the series her entire world revolved around her husband and his needs. It’s only towards the end of the series, when she realises that these men need her more than her husband, that her character and her storyline become truly interesting. A little bit of romance and happiness is needed and welcome, and I’m sure it’s accurate of these women’s experiences, but too much takes away from the gravity of the situation.
The stand outs really are Anna McGahan as Olive Haynes and Georgia Flood as Alice Ross King. McGahan plays Olive as a fierce woman, headstrong and unapologetic, but also as someone who is completely naïve and guileless when it comes to matters of the heart; this naïveté blinds her to her fellow nurses’ choices to marry their sweethearts and return to Australia, to give up when the going gets tough. Flood’s Alice Ross King hits her stride in the fourth episode of the series, when her personal strength is greatly tested, and her commitment to her nursing is made more evident.
The series does tip into the soapie side of things. There is a great deal of emphasis on their love lives – perhaps this is because that would have been what they recorded in their diaries – but I would have liked to see more of the actual nursing. When the ladies of the Australian Army Nursing Service are up to their elbows in it, when they’re tired and emotional and pushed to breaking point – that is when ANZAC Girls is at its most interesting. It’s in these moments that we’re shown the mind-boggling strength, compassion, and endurance that these women had.
If ANZAC Girls was supposed to inspire people to learn more about these nurses, then they’ve succeeded, but if their aim was to show the extent of the brutality, hardship and suffering these women endured then they’ve just missed the mark. Nevertheless, ANZAC Girls presents us with truly fascinating, strong women who lived incredible lives, and for that I am grateful.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Anzac Girls is released on DVD tomorrow, 17th September 2014, in a special 3 disc set. It’s currently screening on ABC TV and also available on iView.